When University Photographer Mike Peters looks out at the sea of faces in the Montclair State University ceremonies he covers, the ones that stand out are those that seem to tell the story and express emotion. “I don’t really know what the people are thinking, but their faces trigger my imagination and hopefully the imaginations of others,” he says.
In the days since the Commencement at MetLife Stadium and at the Convocations happening on campus through June 6, graduates featured in the University’s photo galleries have been sharing their stories of joy, pride and gratitude for those who inspired them or helped bring them to where they are today. Many are the first in their families to earn a college degree.
Four graduates who inspired Peters to focus his camera share what they were thinking in that moment.
Angely Francisco: Flashback of Memories
“Honestly, it was surreal,” says Angely Francisco, a first-generation college graduate who was in line for the College of Education and Human Services before entering the stadium, when she was caught on camera.
“We were all the way in the back because we got there late, and I was taking a selfie with my closest friends. I recall thinking, ‘I cannot believe I’m at Commencement right now.’”
MetLife Stadium was a large enough outdoor space for unlimited numbers of guests to safely attend so Francisco invited her parents, grandparents and cousins. “It meant a lot for my cousins to be there,” she says. “They’re five years old and since I’m an only child, they are my siblings. I wanted to show them the reason why I’m not home is because I was here working hard, earning my degree so that we can have a better life, so they can see that anything is possible.”
Francisco grew up in Paterson and earned a degree in Family Science and Human Development. “I’ve had three jobs every semester and I was always volunteering, doing service, being involved on campus.” She’s taking a break this summer and traveling. “I want to take time to get to know myself more and to see what life is without having this pressure of work and hustle. I’m going to see the world, meet new people, figure out what I like to do and reconnect with my passions.”
When she returns, Francisco has a job waiting as a community advocate with a food justice nonprofit serving people in poverty in Paterson. “I’m going back to where I was raised. I’m going to work with the people I grew up with, empowering and serving them because that’s who I feel the most connected with.”
Mekhi Rivers: Bar Set High
“I saw the camera as I was walking by,” says Mekhi Rivers, “and I just decided to pose, ‘Peace Out Montclair.’ My mom, dad and family were all there, screaming, cheering me on, and I was just giving God glory when I saw the camera. Being a first-generation student, a feeling of joy filled up inside of me. I have a big family, so now a bar has been set, now it’s time for them to achieve excellence as well.”
Rivers grew up in Newark and graduated with a degree in Family Science and Human Development. He plans to continue his studies to earn a master’s in higher education leadership.
Dior Cleaves: Finding a Purpose
Dior Cleaves, his eyes set to the stage, recalls this moment listening to the graduate student speaker giving voice to the theme of purpose: “Purpose is not a destination. Rather, it is a journey where your struggles can be turned into power and joy,” Danielle McDonald told the Class of 2022.
The speech resonated. “I was in the moment, paying attention deeply,” says Cleaves, the first male in his family to graduate. His mother, Ladrunda Gary, is a Montclair alumna and she motivated him to earn a degree in Sociology with minors in Social Work and Business. “I’m definitely trying to find a way to find a purpose – for myself and my family.”
Kevin Bernard: Inspired to Serve
“As I walked into the stadium, my family was near the entrance, and I kept hearing my name. I turned to my right and there was my sister Kiana holding a giant poster, ‘Congrats Grad.’ It was a surprise for me and my family’s way to celebrate the moment itself.”
Bernard earned a degree in Political Science with minors in African Studies and Sociology. “The thing I remember most about the ceremony were remarks about going back into our communities. I’m from Newark and I have a fixation with Newark, its history and its impact on me. I took the words to heart and the day after the ceremony I went to City Hall looking for volunteer work.” He’s committed to working on civic engagement in the city, building financial literacy with student athletes, and encouraging voter registration.
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